With cooler weather, the threat of hurricanes behind us and the possibility of a hard freeze still months away, November may be the best time to be out in the garden. It’s also the perfect time to take stock, make changes and look ahead to spring.
A Clean Sweep
“November is the time when you clean up all the heavy foliage from bananas, ginger, palms and other tropicals,” says landscape architect Steve Coenen. “The great thing about gardening in New Orleans is the mixture of the classic, old New Orleans plant material—camellias, azaleas, crepe myrtle—and an ever increasing selection of tropicals. It’s wonderful to mix it all up,” he says, but tropicals have a tendency to “swamp” everything else in the garden. “If certain things have gotten out of hand, fall is a good time to make a decision about replacing them, moving them or putting something more appropriate in the space.”
Up a Tree
It’s also the time to plant trees. Summer tells you where you need shade, texture or color, Coenen says; fall, after the danger of heat stress has passed, provides the optimal conditions for trees to put down roots. During the dormant stage, there is less chance that the tree will suffer transplant shock, and trees generally require less water in fall than they will come spring.
They do need a little encouragement, however. “My grandfather used to say, ‘You don’t put an $85 tree in an 85-cent hole,’ ” Coenen states—that is, spend a little time and money preparing the site with organic material for fertilizer and pine bark mulch to “lighten” the soil.
Fall is also the time to trim and shape existing trees so they’ll look good when the spring growing season hits, he says. “You want to trim your big trees when they’re in the dormant stage, not while they’re growing.”
Freshening up Flower Beds
Coenen gives his clients’ flower beds a fresh layer of mulch in November, followed by a planting of winter standards: petunias, pansies and snapdragons, for color that can last into spring. Soak nasturtium and sweet pea seeds overnight and plant in November, he says, and “they’ll be vigorous for early spring flowering.”
November may be a little too early to plant flowering bulbs like tulips and hyacinths—the ground should be quite cold—but it’s a good time to buy bulbs and store them in the refrigerator for several weeks. A word of caution: Coenen says there should be no fresh fruit in the refrigerator with the bulbs, because fruit gives off a gaseous hormone that can cause the bulbs to bloom abnormally.
“My favorite bulb is the amaryllis,” he says. Like narcissus, amaryllis bulbs can be “forced” to grow inside, the blooms timed to coincide with the holiday season.
“If you like caladium, November is a good time to order them,” he adds. “People tend to wait until they see them in stores. But then you pay twice as much and the selection is not as good.” Several online merchants sell caladium bulbs, he says, but you’ll have to wait until spring, when the soil warms to about 70 degrees, to plant them. The bulbs should be stored in a warm, dark and dry place until then.
Shrubs can be planted year-round, but as with bulbs, fall offers the best selection. Camellias, in particular: “That’s when the fresh crop comes in,” Coenen says. “That’s very important, because when they’re transported you want to be there early to pick the healthiest looking shrub for your camellia garden.” The best shrubs get picked over fast, he says. “Find out when your favorite nursery is getting their shipment and know what you’re looking for. Be armed with the information you need to make the best selection.”
Maintaining the Garden
While the beds are in transition, gardeners may want to consider installing a sprinkler system if they haven’t done so already. “The best time to do it is when the garden is cleaned out and not so overgrown,” he says.
Spring may still be months away, but the right preparations now will give a garden a leg up on the growing season—and, with a little upkeep, make for an attractive winter display.
“Maintenance is very easy in the winter,” Coenen says. “The important thing to remember is, as winter comes in, there’s more damage, especially to tropi-cals. That has to be cleaned up and maintained.”
Coenen’s own back-yard, it should be noted, looks like an experiment in horticultural chaos theory, a swirl of plants, lights, found art and Coenen’s own whimsical concrete-and-broken tile sculptures. After a day of whipping clients’ gardens into shape, what is he doing to prepare his own for spring?
“Nothing,” he replies, with emphasis.
This article appears in the November 2004 issue of New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles